The US government has published a report detailing how to prepare for the danger of impacts from asteroids that stray too close to Earth in the next ten years.
Classified as near-earth objects (NEOs), these are a group of bodies in the Solar System that are less than 1.3 astronomical units – the distance between the Earth and Sun – from the Sun as they orbit it.
The latest statistics show that NASA has detected 18,310 near-earth asteroids (NEAs) and 123 near-earth comets (NEOs) so far. Most are tiny, measuring a few metres across, and would probably burn up and disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere, making them harmless. Some are several kilometres wide, however, and could cause real damage and even wipe out life on Earth if they came crashing down.
An asteroid measuring 20 metres in size rained down near Chelyabinsk, Russia on 15 February 2013 and carried about 20 to 30 times more energy than what was released by the first atomic bombs. The shock wave shattered windows, damaged buildings, and injured over a thousand people.
NASA reckons there are more than 300,000 objects bigger than 40 metres that could be hazardous to Earth. It is estimated that 25,000 NEAs are at least 140 metres in size. Despite the large sizes of NEOs, they’re difficult to detect more than a few days in advance of a possible impact.
Impact risks can be minimized by shuttling a spacecraft to nudge the object out of its orbit so it doesn’t strike Earth. But if deflection isn’t practical, it may be possible to destroy the object by smashing the spacecraft into it so that the pieces miss Earth or just crumble in Earth’s atmosphere.
But “the United States must also prepare to manage the consequences of NEO impacts where impact prevention is not feasible, preferable, or successful. Effective emergency procedures can save lives and mitigate damage to critical infrastructure,” the report warned.
Five point plan
The Trump Administration’s 2018 National Strategy For Space highlights the need to prepare for NEO hazards and has handed the responsibility to NASA.
It called for NASA’s Administrator to “pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to reduce the risk of harm to humans from an unexpected impact on our planet.”
In response, NASA has set up a five broad goals:
- enhance NEO detection, tracking, and characterization capabilities
- improve NEO modeling prediction, and information integration
- develop technologies for NEO deflection and disruption missions
- increase international cooperation on NEO preparation, and
- establish NEO impact emergency procedures and action protocols
“The nation already has significant scientific, technical and operation capabilities that are relevant to asteroid impact prevention,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer.
“Implementing the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan will greatly increase our nation’s readiness and work with international partners to effectively respond should a new potential asteroid impact be detected.”
NASA plans to continue using any planned or existing telescopes in space to spot NEOs, and hopes to invest in software that can help detect, track and analyse them more autonomously.
NASA spots asteroid on crash course with Earth – with just hours to goREAD MORE
The next step is to create an interagency group that specializes in modelling the threats from the discovered NEOs. It will give the government vital information on how best to deal with the risk of impact. NASA will also develop, test and implement NEO mission systems that can be rapidly deployed to deflect or destroy any lingering objects.
NEOs are bad news for everyone not just the US, so it’s in the country’s interest to inform foreign governments and coordinate together to prepare. However, before then NASA needs to update protocols for notifying the White House, Congress, and the public of potential threats.
If the situation is deemed perilous, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to kickstart procedures to help save lives and protect buildings.
“NEO impacts pose a significant and complex risk to both human life and critical infrastructure, and have the potential to cause substantial and possibly even unparalleled economic and environmental harm,” the report concluded.
“This Strategy and Action Plan provides a road map for a collaborative and federally coordinated approach to developing effective technologies, policies, practices, and procedures for decreasing US and global vulnerability to NEO impacts.
"When implemented, the activities outlined herein will improve detection, research, mission planning, emergency preparedness and response, and domestic and international engagement." ®
PS: President Donald Trump, when not ordering border cops to separate kids from immigrant families, also announced his desire for an American Space Force this week – although exactly what that will be, beyond a sixth branch of the US military, has yet to be determined...